Black Transnationalism in Practice

President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. New York City, New York: September 23, 1960. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York. New York City, New York: September 23, 1960. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Ghanaian politics have once again come to the fore of international media coverage as Ghanaians await the results of the December 7 presidential elections. Two primary narratives recur every election season. Externally, international observers express hope for a peaceful democratic process, holding Ghana up as exemplary, a model of democracy in Africa.

Internally, Ghanaians reflect on pressing questions of corruption, development, and political representation, often measuring the state of the country’s economics against the vision put forward by the first president Kwame Nkrumah in the mid-twentieth century. For many Ghanaians, contending with inadequate infrastructure and a long-standing power crisis, the current cadre of political leaders has fallen short of Nkrumah’s vision of African unity, political sovereignty, and economic self-sufficiency.

As the election period demands that we take stock of Ghana’s development then and now, it is also important to highlight the diasporic focus of Nkrumahist thought. This core element of his philosophy long ago fell out of the discourse on Ghana’s place in Africa and in the world. Yet during his lifetime, Nkrumah was an ardent believer in the need for African unity in particular, and more generally a unified global black response to white supremacy. He argued that Ghana’s development and that of afro-descended people everywhere were intricately connected.

Black transnationalism was not an abstract concept for Nkrumah. He put it into practice through, among other actions, a sustained series of epistolary exchanges with black intellectuals, politicians, and activists around the world. For example, in August 1962 after he survived an assassination attempt, Nkrumah wrote to Cheddi Jaggan, Prime Minister of Guyana and affirmed the continental and diasporic scope of his political project. He wrote to Jaggan on August 23, 1962: “As you so rightly say, the forces of reaction will stop at nothing in order to stop Africa’s march to freedom and unity. One does not, of course, enter into a revolution such as ours without expecting violent opposition from those who do not want to swim with the flood.” Although Nkrumah mentions specifically African unity, his reference to “a revolution such as ours” suggests his inclusion of the Guyanese Prime Minister in this movement of black transnational solidarity.

Kwame Nkrumah (center) and Horace Mann Bond. Photo Source: Temple University Libraries, the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection via Digital Public Library of America.
Kwame Nkrumah (center) and Horace Mann Bond. Photo Source: Temple University Libraries, the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection via Digital Public Library of America.

What is perhaps most striking in Nkrumah’s language, however, is his description of agents of imperialism as “those who do not want to swim with the flood.” Almost ten years prior to Nkrumah’s letter, African American intellectual Eslanda Robeson had published an article in the New World Review titled “The Rising Tide” in which she employed a similar image to the same ends. She argued that white supremacist rhetoric about “the Yellow Peril…the Black Menace” revealed the fear of a growing global anti-imperialist movement in the twentieth century, or what she termed “the Rising Tide of Color.”

Robeson argued that these movements in Africa, Latin America, and the United States were an inevitable response to inequality and exploitation: “Now everybody knows that tide is a natural phenomenon. You just can’t hold back a tide. You have to adjust yourself to it, or be drowned. … It looks as though everybody everywhere better stop worrying about this tide, stop fighting it, and instead, accept it for the natural phenomenon which it is, and jump in and learn to swim.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eslanda Goode Robeson (Credit Schomburg Photographs and Prints Division, Claudia Jones Memorial Photograph Collection)
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eslanda Goode Robeson (Credit Schomburg Photographs and Prints Division, Claudia Jones Memorial Photograph Collection)

The similarity between Robeson’s and Nkrumah’s descriptions points to a shared language of liberation and struggle acquired through a transnational conversation. As part of this conversation, Robeson and Nkrumah exchanged letters throughout the 1960s. Their letters reveal the importance of establishing both personal and professional connections and relationships in order to maintain a transnational network of political actors and intellectuals.

In other words, the political ideas that they expressed publicly, were sometimes first shared and tested in the private space of their letters. For example, on March 28 1962, Robeson wrote to Nkrumah from London, asking that he send Paul Robeson a card for his 64th birthday. She explained the motivation for this seemingly trivial request. Despite his ill health, Paul was committed to visiting the African continent. This observation was significant since Eslanda’s own visits to southern Africa in 1936 and central Africa in 1946 were important moments that significantly shaped her articulations of black transnational solidarity in the face of colonialism in Africa and Jim Crow in the United States. A few months later, on December 17, 1963, she wrote again, this time from “Berlin, (East, of course)” announcing her completed book. She enclosed the table of contents and some of the book’s material, giving Nkrumah access to what likely remains an unpublished text today.1

Paul Robeson (Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1900 - 1957).
Paul Robeson (Courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1900 – 1957).

The letters between Kwame Nkrumah and Shirley Graham Du Bois also bear witness to the intertwined personal and intellectual exchanges through which black actors maintained a transnational network. Although like Robeson, Mrs. Du Bois’ legacy has largely been eclipsed by that of her illustrious husband, she played a central role in their collective project to further black cultural production and intellectual inquiry in Africa and the diaspora. For example, Shirley Graham Du Bois wrote a series of letters to Nkrumah from W.E.B.’s hospital room in London in the summer of 1962. These letters highlight both the shared political ideology between Nkrumah and the Du Boises, as well as their close personal relationship.

That summer, as W.E.B. recovered from major surgery, Nkrumah survived an attempt on his life at Kulungugu in the Northern Region of Ghana.2 The trauma suffered by each took a toll on the other. As Shirley recounts in her letter on August 8, 1962: “Every morning when I appear at the hospital W.E.B. asks anxiously, ‘Any news of the President?’ I say, ‘No, but he’s alright.’ Then his eyes cloud, I assure him, ‘He wasn’t hurt, you remember? He’s alright dear. The bomb didn’t touch him.’ At this, he sighs with relief and is quiet for a long time.” Shirley’s words reveal the strain of this moment, an emotional toll that cannot be captured in other kinds of archival documents such as newspaper reports from the time.

Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Graham DuBois, 1960. Photo Source: Temple University Libraries, the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection via Digital Public Library of America.
Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Graham DuBois, 1960. Photo Source: Temple University Libraries, the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection via Digital Public Library of America.

Yet her letters also show that the private emotions that came with being an insider in moments of political turmoil, were not separate from her continued work as an activist and public intellectual. Thus even as she shared with Nkrumah her fears about W.E.B.’s health, she also quoted extensively from a magazine article she had penned between hospital shifts at her husband’s bedside:

“The assassination of the President of Ghana would be a tragic loss to the world. It would grind to a halt progress in relations between nations and races; it would turn the World Peace Movement back upon itself and it would change the winds now sweeping over so much of the earth into blind and raging fires—without direction. But Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah cannot be lost to Ghanaians—he cannot be lost to Africa. …The Vision for all Africa which he has emblazoned across the skies is a living Spirit which will continue to lead and inspire the people.”

Shirley Graham Du Bois’ words remain pertinent today as Ghanaians find out who will lead the country for the next four years. Given the many missed opportunities to maintain the diasporic ties that Nkrumah, the Robesons, the Du Boises and others cultivated during the twentieth century, this period of taking stock is an opportune moment to begin anew, working towards the Nkrumahist “Vision for all Africa.” One may hope then, that Ghana’s development will not simply remain fodder for feel good Africa Rising narratives once every four years, but rather that its political fate will be intertwined with that of the rest of the continent and the diaspora, through a robust network of transnational exchange.

  1.  Robeson published three books in her lifetime, Paul Robeson, Negro in 1930, African Journey in 1945, and American Argument, co-authored with Pearl Buck in 1949. All of these publications appeared well before her letter to Nkrumah, which she wrote two years before her death.
  2.  Paul Robeson visited W.E.B. in hospital during his recovery. It was one of his first outings after his own hospitalization that summer.

Annette Joseph-Gabriel

Annette Joseph-Gabriel is an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan. Her book manuscript, Decolonial Citizenship: Black Women’s Resistance in the Francophone World, examines Caribbean and African women’s anti-colonial writings and political organizing. Follow her on Twitter @AnnetteJosephG.

Comments on “Black Transnationalism in Practice

  • This is indeed the sad irony of Dr. Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah’s legacy which the Ghanaian political framework has been sabotaged and abandoned to our own national peril, and tragically that of the overall or general Continental African-politic directional dogma.

    Obviously, the onset clarion call by Nkrumah on the eve of our Independent declaration that: “The Independence of Ghana is meaningless, Unless it is linked-up with the Total Liberation of Africa itself…” have fallen on deaf ears! He unquestionably foresaw what most Ghanaians then, did not see or rather perhaps never understood, but still foolishly yet, our so-called current politicians in particular, and indeed African politicians as a whole willfully ignore. For their ill-advised personal selfish ambitions of holding a title called President.

    In fact, Nkrumah was neither a “dictator nor drunken with the ambition of being the “First president of a United States of Africa” as has erroneously often been argued by some politically uneducated bunch and/or some foreign power apologists both within Ghana itself, and somewhere in Africa due to their own political naivety. In the comprehensive scheme of geo-global and global politics as understood by the powers that be. Also arguably elsewhere by the Oppressors themselves for their Economic convenience of Subjugation and neo-colonialism!

    Why!!! They reckoned then at the time, and even now… political immaturity and ignorance of the Ghanaian, or African masses and populace. And so, when they, (The Western Powers) having successfully engineered or orchestrated and financed his overthrow were able to continue their Exploitation, which was the original causes and purposes of igniting the agitation for Independence, in the first place. Starting with these same Ashantis primarily, but not exclusively.

    Finally, having seductively convinced the shortsighted imbeciles of the Ghanaian Military and Police ranks, coupled with their imposed economic sabotage and subversion against Nkrumah’s programs and government used them to topple him and the country’s progress. Thereby disrupting and derailing the onward total African political Emancipation as a whole.

    The result of which is what everyone sees in Africa’s chaos today! Osagyefo said it!!! Nobody took heed, so now all his premonitions and warnings have come home to Roost or Manifest in Ghana…. Indeed AFRICA !!! While the West stand out and look with glee, while the teeming Africans Suffer! Now China is also partaking in the Kill. Tragic! huh?

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